Birdwatchers Spend More and Stay Longer Than Other Alaskan Tourists, Study Finds
Most of the birders who pulled into Juneau’s Rainforest Trail parking lot at 8 a.m. Friday were locals, but docent Brenda Wright set some expectations for outsiders and first-timers.
“It’s a very hot spot for the red-breasted woodpecker,” she said.
“You’re kidding – that’s why I’m here!” said visitor Lynn Hartmann.
She and her partner, Martha Johnson, visit Juneau from Minnesota. Hartmann came looking for the birds: red-breasted woodpeckers, red-throated loons, Pacific wrens and the Pacific slope flycatcher. She is one of the growing number of tourists who come to Alaska every year to look for birds.
A recent study from the University of Alaska Fairbanks shows that birdwatchers like them could be a boon to the economy and to conservation efforts, especially in rural and remote areas.
Birdwatchers stay longer and spend more
The couple are in town for a week, staying in a bed and breakfast. They went to Mendenhall Glacier to see Arctic terns, took a whale-watching excursion for more seabirds, and now they’re taking a guided walk through temperate coastal rainforest with the Audubon Society.
But they also do other things. Johnson goes to the municipal pool every morning and she says they have sampled the local restaurants.
“We tried to take advantage of the local culture — you know, we can’t watch birds 12 hours a day! So it’s been kind of a multi-faceted journey,” Johnson said.
Birdwatchers are the largest group of ecotourists in the world. And according to the new study, they’re a real moneymaker in Alaska — and the state is just starting to cash in.
“Bird watchers, compared to non-birders, stay twice as long, and they spend significantly more money than the average visitor or non-birder to Alaska,” said Tobias Schwoerer, one of the authors of the study and research professor at UAF International Center for Arctic Research.
“All the people who said they saw birds, if we sum up their spending, it was over $300 million in 2016,” Schwoerer said.
The more than 300,000 birders who visit Alaska each year generate more than 3,000 jobs in the state, according to the study. Schwoerer compared the employment figure to the total number of Alaskans employed by other industries, such as telecommunications.
An intact ecosystem
They come because Alaska is home to the largest concentration of shorebirds in the world and is a globally important breeding ground for migratory birds. Alaska has the most Important Bird Areas of any state – and yes, Important Bird Area is an international measure, overseen in the United States by the Audubon Society.
“We have these hotspots, and they’re still intact,” Schwoerer said. “Alaska is kind of the last little bit of nature where they can have a very intact ecosystem to support their populations.”
He says climate change is increasingly threatening wilderness and biodiversity, but Alaska can benefit from wildlife tourism through conservation and infrastructure. This means opportunities across the state, but especially in rural areas.
Natalie Dawson, another of the study’s authors, says she got the idea while guiding in remote parts of Alaska.
“If I was in a community and there was a rare bird that had flown over from somewhere else in the circumpolar north, I would find people who would have traveled thousands of miles just to see individual birds,” a- she declared.
She said birdwatchers are motivated to go where the birds are – places like the North Slope to see eider ducks or west to the Pribilof Islands for seabirds.
Southeast festivals attract a lot
But Dawson says the study showed more than half of birders’ money is spent in Southeast Alaska. She attributes this in part to bird festivals like the Hummingbird Festival in Ketchikan and the Bald Eagle Festival in Haines.
“These festivals actually seem to be, yes, congregations for birding, tourism, and birding-related travellers,” Dawson said. “This study shows that if you can come together with a vision for a community and an activity that can attract people and provide them with information on how to experience this wildlife, then that seems to attract people to your area.”
Cordoba’s Copper River Delta Shorebird Festival has been attracting off-road birdwatchers for decades. The local Chamber of Commerce estimates that more than 100 visitors have spent nearly $175,000 in town this year, allowing local businesses to reopen after a quiet winter.
Back on the Rainforest Trail in Juneau, Lynn Hartmann stood in the trees, listening. Various thrushes whistled their haunting notes to the melodic song of the Swainson’s Thrush.
“It’s like hearing 20 languages at once,” Hartmann said.
There was no red-breasted woodpecker, but she and Martha spotted a Pacific slope flycatcher and heard its characteristic song. And there was still time for the sapsucker – they were in town for a few more days.